Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hidden in Plain Sight - Part 1

The Tablet Marker for the 4th Alabama Infantry,
one of the battlefield's most unique monuments.
Photo by Jen Goellnitz, Creative Commons Licensing.
No other battlefield can boast the number of monuments that cover Gettysburg National Military Park. The sheer array often causes visitors to lose sight of the fact that a unique story awaits discovery with each and every granite stone or iron tablet on the field. Some of the more obscure memorials lie well off the worn pathways of the Park Service driving tour, and receive infrequent visitation. Others remain hidden in plain sight.

The marker for the 4th Alabama Regiment on South Confederate Avenue sits right beside the road that carries most battlefield tourists to Little Round Top, but few stop to read the tablet's inscription. The tablet mirrors (in slightly smaller form) the design of all the tablets that mark the positions of Confederate brigade on the battlefield. The resemblance causes many tourists to pass by the 4th Alabama's marker without further inquiry. And yet, the resemblance holds the key to the marker's unique history, and the story of the man behind its placement: William McKendree Robbins. Over the next few posts I will take some time to explore the history of the 4th Alabama, the life of William M. Robbins, and attempt to explain what makes this seemingly straight-forward tablet so interesting.

William McKendree Robbins was born in Randolph County, North Carolina in 1828, the son of Ahi Robbins and Mary Brown Leach Robbins. William did not grow up on a large plantation, however he did live in a slave-holding household. The slave schedules for both the 1850 and 1860 census show that Ahi Robbins owned five slaves.

As a young man William pursued classical studies, and graduated from Randolph-Macon College in Virginia in 1851. He returned home to serve as a professor of mathematics at Normal College in Randolph County until 1853. The following year he married Mary Montgomery of Montville, South Carolina, and by 1855 he had set up a female college in Glennville, Alabama.

Robbins soon abandoned this project and began to practice law in Alabama. He lost his first wife in 1858 (the two had two children), but soon married her sister, Martha Montgomery. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Robbins helped to organize the Marion Light Infantry, a company of soldiers from Perry County Alabama. The unit organized as Company G of the 4th Alabama Infantry, and in April of 1861 Robbins enlisted with the rank of 1st Lieutenant.
This photo of William McKendree Robbins was taken
sometime between 1865 and 1880. Photo from the
Library of Congress.

The 4th mustered for one year of service and proceeded immediately to the Virginia theater, and became part of General Bernard Bee's brigade. Fighting at First Manassas, both Bee and the 4th's colonel, Egbert J. Jones, were killed. Evander M. Law replaced Jones at the head of the regiment.

During the first winter of the war the unit reenlisted for three-years. As part of Confederate conscription law, units reenlisting could hold new elections for officers. In April of 1862, Company G voted to turn out its original commander, Porter King, and elected Robbins to the post of captain. The unit fought at Seven Pines, during the Seven Days, at 2nd Manassas, and at Sharpsburg. In the aftermath of the Maryland Campaign a shakeup saw the 4th placed in an all-Alabama brigade along with the 15th, 44th, 47th, and 48th regiments. Evander Law ascended to brigade command. The unit then fought at Fredericksburg, but missed the battle of Chancellorsville. In June, Robbins and the rest of the 4th Alabama moved north with Lee's army.

The rising sun on July 2nd, 1863 saw Law's Alabama brigade trekking eastward along the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg. The men had cooked rations and set out at 3 a.m. from New Guilford, some 25 miles from the scene of action. Lee had tasked the Alabamians with covering the army's rear. The men of the 4th marched at a rapid and fatiguing pace as the day grew hotter, and tramped through South Mountain at Cashtown Pass. The troops began to arrive on the first day's field of battle sometime in the early afternoon, having covered 25 miles in about 11 hours. Their ordeal had just begun.

As the Alabamians rejoined their comrades in the Army of Northern Virginia's 1st Corps, they set out on a second mission - to find and drive in the enemy's southern flank. After a slow and confusing march, by about 4 p.m. the assault column had managed to reach positions along Warfield Ridge and Snyder Ridge, opposite the flank of the Army of the Potomac. Hood's Division - the southernmost unit in the attack force - formed in two lines. Law's Alabamians - about 2,000 strong - formed the right half of the front line, while the famed Texas brigade completed Hood's alignment. Two brigades of Georgians waited several hundred yards to the rear as support. As his brigade swung into line General Law rushed forward skirmishers into the fields in ahead.

"Gettysburg. A view of the hills on the left of our position from the Rebel artillery, last Rebel shot." This sketch by Alfred Waud found in the Library of Congress shows us the view that Hood's division faced on July 2nd. The Texas Brigade would have launched their assault from this position heading towards Devi's Den and Little Round Top just ahead. The 4th Alabama would have started from the right of this view, first heading towards the northwest slope of Big Round Top.

If William Robbins had a few moments to view what he and his men faced as they prepared to go into battle that afternoon, the sight must have encouraged a few nerves. The 4th Alabama formed as the left flank regiment of Law's brigade. In front of them lay plowed fields bisected by several low stone walls, where crack marksmen of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters crouched in waiting. Behind them stood the house and outbuildings of the Slyder Farm, and beyond that the dark wooded slopes of Big Round Top towered over a small stream that ran along its base - Plum Run.

To the left front of the 4th stood two other eminences. First stood the crest of Houck's Ridge: a small knob crowned with four rifled artillery pieces from the 4th New York Independent Battery. Beyond that, in the distance Robbins could have easily seen Little Round Top, with its western face recently cleared of timber. Lieutenant Colonel L. H. Scruggs, commanding the 4th on this day, described the assault in his report a month later:

After driving in the federal skirmish line, the 4th Alabama reached cover along the northwest slope of Big Round Top and paused to reform their lines. They had rounded the flank of the federal 3rd Corps at Devil's Den, but in front of them new enemy forces had arrived and taken positions along a shelf on the southwestern slope of Little Round Top. The Alabamians aligned themselves with the 4th and 5th Texas to their left, and the three regiments advanced against the federal soldiers on the shelf - the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York, and 16th Michigan of Strong Vincent's brigade. The steep terrain proved difficult to ascend, and large boulders strewn about the hill provided some cover for the assaulting Confederates, but also broke up their formations as they moved forward. After several attempts to drive Vincent's men off the shelf, the Alabamians had to admit defeat. They could not carry the center of the federal line, and the troops to their right and left had similar success.  Scruggs reported:

The men of the 4th Alabama withdrew some two hundred yards to the western slopes of Big Round Top, where they threw up breastworks and stayed through much of the following day. Late in the afternoon on the 3rd the men saw one final action at Gettysburg, assisting in the repulse the 1st Vermont Cavalry during Farnsworth's ill-fated charge. During two days of battle the 4th lost 15 men killed and 72 wounded or missing.

Little did Captain Robbins know as the Army of Northern Virginia pulled out of Gettysburg during the night of July 4th, that the battlefield he left behind would figure so prominently in his future plans. But that story is for another day.

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